Water is the limit

At least two billion people live in areas affected by water stress, with a supply of less than 1.7 million litres per year. MO* looks at the current state of water, both on the surface and below.

  • CC Francisco Martins A quarter of human water consumption is extracted from underground basins. CC Francisco Martins
  • Philippe Rekacewicz Waterstress-Index: The darker, the more problematic. Philippe Rekacewicz

Our blue planet is full of water. It falls from the sky in the form of rain, continues its journey through creeks and mighty rivers, but it is also present where we can’t see it: in subterranean basins. The human thirst for water is so great, that we have started to look everywhere we can.

Up until the 20th century, we mainly used surface water. Increasingly- and especially since the 1960s- humans have used ever more technical ways to gather water from below the surface. According to the United Nations’ World Water Development Report 2012, 1000 cubic kilometres of water were pumped up around the planet in 2010. 67 Percent of that was used for irrigation, 22 percent for domestic consumption, and the remaining 11 percent for industry. Over the past 50 years, global water usage has more than tripled, and continues to increase by 2 percent each year. Ground water now makes up a quarter of human water usage, and provides half of all drinking water, and 43% of all water used for irrigation.

1.7 Million litres per person per year

The explosion of ground water consumption has not quenched the thirst of the world’s growing population. At least two billion people live in areas suffering from water stress: these areas have less than 1,700 m³ of water per person per year. This is the equivalent of 1.7 Million litres which may sound like a lot. However, feeding and washing people, as well as providing them with energy and industrial goods requires a tremendous amount of water.

The available water in a country or region is the yearly precipitation (including water that seeps into the soil), plus half of the water that flows into the region via rivers. In Flanders and Brussels, the yearly average available water per person is 1,480 m³, which is a lot less than the European average. This puts these regions in the league of India, Pakistan, Ethiopia, Somalia, Poland, South Korea and South Africa – all countries suffering from water stress (with between 1,000 m³ and 1,700 m³ of water per capita per year). Northern Africa, the Middle East and Kenya suffer from water scarcity, with less than 1,000 m³ available per person. This level is comparable to that of the water basin of the Belgian Scheldt River. Professor in hydrogeology Kristine Walravens from the University of Ghent elaborates: “for Europe, this is a serious shortage of water, with its obvious explanation being our high population density.” On the other hand, the average water availability in the Belgian Meuse basin is very high, at nearly 10,000 m³ – a wealth mainly explained by the enormous influx from France.

As in Belgium, national averages of water availability don’t tell the full story: there are regions in the West of the United States, in Iran, in Central Asia, in the North-East of China and in Europe that use more water than flows in per year.


Waterstress-Index: The darker, the more problematic. © Philippe Rekacewicz

An important distinction has to be made between the water that is available, and the water that is realistically accessible. DRC is a prime example: the country has a lot of available water, but a lack of technology and suitable infrastructure means that a large part of the population does not have access to sufficient drinking water – a situation called economic water scarcity.

Always digging deeper

The regions with the biggest water stress are also the places with the comparatively highest volume of ground water being pumped up. This does not come as a surprise: when surface water does not cover the demand, people start looking for water below the surface (viz. the graph on page XX).

The North East of China has an average yearly water availability of only 500,000 litres (500 m3) of water per person. This is comparable to the situation in Jordan, but China needs to feed a lot more people- which implies competition between water use for agriculture and drinking-, all while delivering industrial products to the rest of the world. In a lot of places, the ground water level has dropped by tens of metres, and an area six times the size of Belgium is threatened by landslides.

The Indian state of Punjab, which constitutes one and a half percent of India’s surface, produces no less than twelve percent of the country’s grain crops. Punjab was the state where the Green Revolution – based on hybrid seed, artificial fertilisers and loads of water – had the biggest success. However, this production boom meant that in 2010, at least 79% of the ground water basins was overexploited or in a critical state. Right over the border, in Pakistani Punjab, the problems are on the same scale: in 2000, over half a million water pumps contributed to make Punjab the grain production centre of the country. Most of those pumps are not registered, which complicates implementing water policies: how do you negotiate with unknown operators?

In South East Spain, the boom of the tourist industry and vegetable production for export put a lot of stress on what is in essence a relatively dry region. The same is true of California, a comparatively dry region supporting a large population interested in swimming pools and lush lawns.

The Middle East is depleting its ground water resources at the fastest pace. The arid, but wealthy Gulf states have tried to close their eyes to reality by using very deep ground water basins. These basins contain fossil water – they are not refilled by precipitation, which means their content is finite. The approach was doomed to fail, and in 2008, Saudi-Arabia put an end to its 30-year-old policy of large-scale grain production. Between 2005 and 2010, the grain production was halved, and it is possible that it will have disappeared by 2016.

Surprisingly, even rainy Flanders has areas where ground water basins are being depleted. According to professor Walravens: “the so-called Sokkel aquifer (an aquifer is a subterranean water basin, ed.) is showing a serious depression around Waregem – to find water there, you have to look beyond a depth of 200 metres. Aalst suffers from a smaller depression as well.”

Ground water basin = subsoil saturated with ground water

Ground water basins are not underground rivers or lakes, but rather volumes of subsoil more or less saturated with water. Some types of subsoil can retain a lot of water, other won’t contain as much. Ground water basins generally correlate with the watersheds of rivers. The relief created by geological features defines the flow of water on the surface. A part of that water gradually seeps into the soil; another part continues its flow through creeks and rivers.

Below the surface, the water keeps on flowing, but at a highly reduced speed: it generally slowly seeps downwards, guided by geological layers. Rivers remain the most important exit ways for ground water: during dry season, a large part of a river’s flow is made possible by ground water. This is why creeks and rivers can keep on flowing, even when it hasn’t rained in weeks. Sources are places where ground water works its way to the surface.

The demand keeps on rising

Despite the rising consumption of ground water, water stress shows no sign of abating. The reason for this is that human activities need ever more water. In the future, stress on water is expected to increase.

The biggest consumers are agriculture and food production. Their share is especially high in developing countries, making up 90% in the Least Developed Countries, and 83% in India. The OECD average is 44 percent.

It is only logical that a growing population needs more food. But since people are getting wealthier in developing countries, meat consumption is on the rise – and producing meat requires a lot of water: producing a kilogram of rice requires 3,500 litres of water, which is less than a quarter of that needed to produce a kilogram of meat. It is expected that meat consumption in developing countries will keep on rising.

Energy production requires water as well: we need cooling water for thermal plants, irrigation for bio-fuels and sufficient water volumes to drive hydropower plants. Countries like China and India will probably increase their energy production by five times over the following decades. The UN expects that energy production will need 11% more water by 2050.

In rich countries, over forty percent of the water consumption is due to industrial activities. Since a lot of developing countries are increasing their level of industrialisation, a related increase in water consumption is to be expected. The growing use of raw materials adds stress to the water. Chile, the world’s largest producer of copper, is using a thousand million litres of water per day for its copper extraction. The government expects this to increase by nearly 50% by 2020. Since a large part of the extraction happens in the high desert, more and more seawater has to be pumped to an altitude of 4,000 meters before desalination. This requires an enormous amount of energy – which yet again exposes the close ties between water and energy.

Since a few years ago, half of the world’s population now lives in cities. Urbanisation has a very specific impact on water use. On one side, megacities put a large stress on their ground water basins. Bangkok (Thailand), Chennai (India), Manila (Philippines) and the Chinese towns Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin and Xian are facing lowering ground water levels, decreasing water quality and landslides. Mexico City has experience sinkholes of over 9 metres in depth and recently announced it will start digging for water at over two kilometres deep. In addition, urban water pollution limits the amount of available water. All of this explains that the demand for water will keep on rising, while the amount of water won’t increase. We can likely expect growing tension around water between different sectors, and between those who have a lot of water and those who don’t.

Choosing wisely

Regions with water stress force their inhabitants to make choices. First, we need to ascertain a sustainable level of water consumption. After that, this amount has to be divided between agriculture, domestic use, energy and industry. Due to the people involved and their interests (or even their survival), this requires tough decisions.

Trade can make the situation less transparent. In many cases, water is imported or exported as virtual water used in traded products. “And that’s why I don’t believe the free market will solve this: water needs to be a part of the public economy,” Riccardo Petrella states. He’s an activist for global social justice who focuses on the social and moral dimensions of water usage.

Trade can indeed have serious impacts on water. A region that exports more water than it imports, will deplete its ground water resources, and losing that buffer makes one vulnerable. On top of that, exporting water – for example in agricultural products – can take that water away from other users. When Israel exports fruit, grown using the water from ground water basins below the occupied West Bank, the trade-off between trade, agriculture and domestic use becomes highly politicised. European consumers use that water, and Israeli farmers earn money from it, but this is done by taking the water from the Palestinians, who already have a lot less available water than the average Israeli. Choices about water usage often have ecological, social and political consequences. In some places, correctly dividing water consumption is not enough of a solution, and there is no other way but to use less water. China recently capped its water use: in 2015, it can’t use more than 635 billion m3 of water. Some areas of Flanders face the same choice, professor Walravens says: “Only by pumping up 75% less water in and around Waregem, the water level will gradually restore itself. A decrease like this will not happen overnight, but at some point, it will have to happen. Rationing water, in deliberation with all actors, seems to be unavoidable for this region in the future.”

For a long time, we considered that there was an opposition between ecosystems and development, between humans and nature. Nowadays, it’s becoming clear that we can’t survive without the ecosystems, and that these all depend on water. Policies need to intelligently address the different services we receive from ecosystems. Over-extracting water from these ecosystems will limit their capacity for other services. For example, over-extracting irrigation water from the upstream Mississippi has seriously damaged its delta, and limited its potential to protect humans from the effects of hurricanes. Humankind will have to reconsider its view on water, and its place in nature. Walravens: “We’re only a part of nature.”

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